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Football: Flynn Nagel revives dormant Northwestern punt return unit

Football: Flynn Nagel revives dormant Northwestern punt return unit
(Leeks Lim/The Daily Northwestern)

Northwestern’s kick return unit electrified fans in 2015, with then-sophomore Solomon Vault taking two kicks to the house in two especially high-leverage moments.

But the Wildcats punt return unit failed to offer any kind of balance. The combination of then-freshman Flynn Nagel and then-senior Miles Shuler ran back just 13 punts all year, ranking 10th out of 14 teams in the Big Ten. All too often NU’s punt returners wouldn’t even field the ball, letting it bounce for a few extra yards instead calling for a fair catch.

Nagel changed that Saturday against Duke by running back five punts, the most in a game for the Cats over at least the past nine seasons. He didn’t bust a long one, but Nagel’s returns were consistently positive. That he was trying to return them at all was a welcome sight to many fans.

“Our guys always have a green light,” coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “I can’t jump in their heads and say, ‘catch it and run.’ … But we tell the guys to be aggressive, we tell them to err on the side of being aggressive and catching them.”

Nagel has clearly taken that to heart, and his assertiveness in fielding punts Saturday brought back memories of NU’s best punt returner in recent memory: Venric Mark.

A dynamic running back in his own right, Mark truly shined when he dropped back deep to field a punt. After his junior season in 2012, Mark received first-team All-America honors as a return specialist thanks to the two punts he returned for scores that year.

When Mark got ready to field a punt, everybody in the stadium held their breath in anticipation. Nagel has yet to bust a long return and doesn’t inspire the same kind of fear, but that he tries at least offers some hope.

“This week, I think we just had a lot of guys doing a good job blocking their guy, so it gave me a little bit of time back there,” Nagel said of his performance. “As long as everybody keeps doing their job I’m going to try to keep being aggressive.”

That aggressiveness, Fitzgerald said, is key to being a “dude” — somebody like Mark who can make defenders miss and turn nothing into something on a punt return. Nagel obviously isn’t at that level yet, but Fitzgerald seems encouraged by the early returns.

“He was pretty fearless on Saturday,” Fitzgerald said. “It was pretty cool.”

Rapid Reaction: Northwestern 24, Duke 13

by Tim Balk 0 Comments
Rapid Reaction: Northwestern 24, Duke 13
(Leeks Lim/The Daily Northwestern)

The nightmare is over.

After opening the season with a pair of unexpected, narrow losses, NU rebounded under the lights Saturday against Duke, winning 24-13 at Ryan Field.

The Cats benefited from an improved performance from its offensive line, which opened up enough holes to allow junior running back Justin Jackson to carve out 94 rushing yards, and provided solid pass protection for sophomore quarterback Clayton Thorson, who set a career-high with 320 passing yards.

The Cats set the tone for the win with a quick 10-play, 75 yard drive to open the game. Thorson ended the drive with a 26-yard touchdown pass to junior superback Garrett Dickerson. After the first drive, though, the Cats’ offense stalled for the remainder of the half, with a late drive ending in a missed 34-yard field goal. The Cats headed to the locker room locked in a 7-7 tie.

Duke threatened to score on its opening drive of the second half, but an Anthony Walker forced fumble snuffed out the drive at NU’s 21 yard line.

Later in the quarter, a botched punt snap gave the Cats offense the ball at the 44-yard line. NU struck on one play as Clayton Thorson connected with junior Solomon Vault for a 44-yard touchdown pass that gave the Cats a 14-7 lead they would not surrender.

NU extended its lead to 17-7 with a 40-yard field goal from Jack Mitchell with 12 seconds left in the third quarter.

Clayton Thorson connected with senior Austin Carr for a 58-yard touchdown pass with 4:56 left in the contest, further padding the Cats’ lead. Carr finished with six catches for a career-high 135 yards.

Duke would add a touchdown in garbage time on a one-yard run from Shaun Wilson, but the Blue Devils missed the extra point, giving the game its final score.

NU finishes its three game non-conference having won just one of its three contests before Big Ten play.

Northwestern stats to know: 

  • Justin Jackson: 28 carries for 94 rushing yards; 3.4 yards per carry.
  • Clayton Thorson: 18-of-39, career-high 320 passing yards. Tied a career-high with three passing TDs. Threw two interceptions.
  • Austin Carr: 58-yard touchdown catch-and-run, career-high 135 receiving yards
  • Anthony Walker: Forced/recovered fumble
  • Godwin Igwebuike: First interception since 2014 Wisconsin game

Duke stats to know:

  • QB Daniel Jones: 27-for-48 with 279 passing yards
  • RB Jela Duncan: 53 rushing yards on 11 carres with 1 touchdown

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 3

Depth Chart Breakdown: Week 3
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

Northwestern’s once-vaunted defense struggled for the second consecutive week in a loss Saturday against Illinois State, and the Wildcats’ Week 3 depth chart for their upcoming contest against Duke reflects some changes coaches hope will jumpstart the lagging unit.

The most dramatic move comes on the defensive line. Senior CJ Robbins moves from defensive tackle to left defensive end after a strong showing in that role against the Redbirds, replacing incumbent senior Ifeadi Odenigbo in the starting lineup. Junior Xavier Washington will switch sides from left to right defensive end in order to accommodate the move, and sophomore Fred Wyatt will step up to fill Robbins’ former spot at defensive tackle.

Robbins shifted out to defensive end fairly early against Illinois State and didn’t look back, recording two tackles for loss and five tackles total. The 305-pounder doesn’t look like a traditional defensive end, but his move outside will bulk up a group which has struggled so far in short-yardage situations.

The defense has also adjusted for injuries at cornerback to senior starter Matthew Harris and backup redshirt freshman Alonzo Mayo. Redshirt freshman Trae Williams will replace Harris, and true freshman Roderick Campbell and Brian Bullock are now listed as the backups. Bullock has yet to appear in a game this season, reflecting the depletion of depth NU faces at the position.

Another true freshman will be stepping in at wide receiver. Ben Skowronek logged his first career catch against Illinois State, and has supplanted junior Marcus McShepard as a backup receiver. Listed at 6-foot-4, Skowronek is tied for being the tallest wideout on the roster and adds size to an otherwise small unit.

Advance Scouting: Duke

by Ben Pope 0 Comments
Advance Scouting: Duke
(Daily file photo by Zack Laurence)

A week after a heartbreaking 9-7 loss to Illinois State, Northwestern will host their first night game of the season against Duke, another Power-5 conference team that was upset at home Saturday.

The Blue Devils dropped a 24-14 decision to Wake Forest in Durham after taking a 7-0 lead early, their first loss in the annual matchup since 2011. The game was largely decided on the ground, where Wake Forest out-rushed Duke 239-37.

The loss is a worrisome sign for a Duke team that has become a perennially strong team under coach David Cutcliffe after decades of mediocrity. The Blue Devils have gone to a bowl game four years in a row and went 8-5 with a Pinstripe Bowl win over Indiana in 2015, despite losing 19-10 to Northwestern early in the season.

The Cats will square off against Duke this year at perhaps a critical moment for both teams — NU attempting to right the ship after a disastrous start to the season, and Duke seeking to avoid a similar situation as the Cats.

Duke’s biggest strength: The pass defense that essentially shut down NU last season returns almost all of its key players — except for star safety Jeremy Cash, gone to the NFL — and has gotten off to a great start to 2016.

Duke held Clayton Thorson to just 70 yards and two interceptions on 9-of-23 passing last September, and only a Solomon Vault kick return touchdown and 55-yard Warren Long run got the Cats into the end zone.

The unit ultimately didn’t have the best of seasons — they ranked 81st in opponent pass efficiency — but they’ve looked much-improved through the first two weeks this autumn.

A group of four seniors (cornerbacks DeVon Edwards and Breon Borders and safeties Corbin McCarthy and Deondre Singleton) held FCS team N.C. Central to 7-of-25 passing for 74 yards and an interception, then Wake Forest to 9-of-16 passing for 150 yards and another interception.

Duke’s biggest weakness: The offensive and defensive lines have been an issue for Duke, as they have for NU.

The Blue Devils’ defensive front was destined for a rebuilding year: four of the top five tacklers from 2015 graduated, with only tackle A.J. Wolf returning. Wake Forest gashed the defense for 239 total yards, including a huge performance by running back Cade Carney, who carried 17 times for 108 yards (6.4 yards per attempt) and three touchdowns.

Of even greater concern has been the offensive line.

Duke managed only 37 yards on 30 carries against Wake Forest, and quarterback Daniel Jones was sacked five times. New starters Zach Baker and Austin Davis are struggling to develop chemistry with the rest of the unit.

This could be exactly the matchup that the Cats need to regain some confidence in their own lines, which senior guard Connor Mahoney said “got (their) butts kicked” against Illinois State.

Duke’s biggest question: Can redshirt freshman quarterback Daniel Jones replace injured senior Thomas Sirk’s production and leadership?

The Blue Devils were dealt a tremendous blow before the season even started when Sirk, a senior, tore his Achilles for the third time in his collegiate career in practice and was ruled out for the season. Sirk lead the team in both passing and running last season.

Jones was sheltered in the opener against N.C. Central before being forced to throw it 48 times against Wake Forest, with some but not a ton of success. He also ran it 19 times for only a net of six yards, including sacks.

Duke isn’t a team with a robust crop of dangerous running backs, so multidimensional effectiveness from the quarterback position is necessary for their offense to function. The jury is still out on whether or not Jones can provide that.

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1

2016 Football Preview: Breaking down Northwestern’s schedule, Part 1
(Daily file photo by Sophie Mann)

After a record-setting season, the Wildcats come into 2016 with high expectations for themselves. Despite a blowout loss in the Outback Bowl, their 10 regular-season wins arguably helped them achieve their second-best season ever. But expectations from the outside are not as optimistic. In the season’s first AP Poll, Northwestern went unranked and received just five votes even though the team spent most of 2015 in the Top 25 and finished at No. 23. So what’s really in store for the Cats in 2016? Here we take a look at their schedule, starting with the first six games.

Sept. 3: vs. Western Michigan. Last year — 8-5 (6-2 MAC), won Bahamas Bowl. Coach — P.J. Fleck (fourth year) 

Fleck has earned a reputation as one of the best recruiters outside of the non-Power conferences and has led the Broncos to back-to-back 8-5 seasons after going 1-11 his first year. In 2016 they return almost all of their starters on offense, including senior quarterback Zach Terrell who threw for over 3,500 yards last season and 29 touchdowns against nine interceptions. This is a team that NU should not underestimate, as starting off the season on the wrong foot will be detrimental in trying to forget about the blowout at the end of last season.

Best case scenario: Justin Jackson takes advantage of Western Michigan’s seeming inability to stop the big run play and rushes for two scores. Clayton Thorson also gets in on the running game, using his legs to keep the opposing defense off-balance. NU’s defense confuses Terrell and the Cats win by 17.

Worst case scenario: The absence of Keith Watkins II immediately burns NU and the experienced Terrell takes advantage of the non-Matthew Harris side of the field. Jack Mitchell misses a field goal, and Thorson throws at least two interceptions as the Cats look woefully unprepared to start the season and fall to the up-and-coming Broncos.

Sept. 10: vs. Illinois State. Last year — 10-3 (7-1 MVFC), reached FCS quarterfinals. Coach — Brock Spack (eighth year) 

As the only FCS opponent on the schedule, Illinois State is by far NU’s easiest game, but that doesn’t mean it’s a complete cakewalk. The Redbirds were consistently ranked in the Top 6 of the FCS throughout 2015, even reaching as high as No. 2 and drawing a few first-place votes away from consensus favorite and champion North Dakota State. Illinois State lost its quarterback and running back from last season, but the rest of its starters return looking to steal a win in Evanston.

Best case scenario: This won’t be as big a win as last year’s early-season victory over Eastern Illinois, but the Cats will easily handle their FCS opponent. NU gets a big enough lead where they can rest their starters and Matt Alviti actually throws a touchdown pass.

Worst case scenario: The Redbirds keep the game close to the end, but NU manages to pull out a win at the last second. It’s a startlingly close game where Jackson leaves with an injury in the second quarter, knocking him out for a couple of weeks.

Sept. 17: vs. Duke. Last year  — 8-5 (4-4 ACC), won Pinstripe Bowl. Coach — David Cutcliffe (ninth year) 

NU faced the Blue Devils a year ago in Durham and won by 9 in a game that was the perfect embodiment of Pat Fitzgerald football — dominant defense, field possession and working the clock. This year the programs face off under the lights in Evanston and Duke is looking to establish some form of consistency. After starting the year 6-1 the Blue Devils lost four of their final five games but salvaged the season with an overtime win over Indiana in the Pinstripe Bowl. Their up-tempo offense sputtered against the Cats last year, and this matchup could determine whether last year’s close win was a fluke.

Best case scenario: NU again holds Duke’s offense to just one touchdown and Solomon Vault returns another kickoff for a touchdown. Thorson is responsible for three Cat touchdowns using his legs and arm and doesn’t turn the ball over, while Anthony Walker forces two fumbles.

Worst case scenario: The game is scoreless going into halftime. NU muffs a punt early in the third quarter and Duke takes advantage, but Thorson nearly saves the day by throwing a touchdown pass with three seconds left in the game. Fitzgerald opts to go for two instead of kicking the extra point to tie and the Cats fail to convert, losing the game.

Update: This post was written before it was announced Duke quarterback Thomas Sirk will miss the season with an injury. Without Sirk’s two-dimensional style of play, NU will have a much easier shot at winning.

Sept. 24: vs. Nebraska. Last year — 6-7 (3-5 Big Ten), won Foster Farms Bowl. Coach — Mike Riley (second year) 

The battle for “The Real NU” could end up as the Cats’ toughest home game on the schedule. Nebraska struggled mightily last year after firing Bo Pelini, failing to reach nine wins for the first time since before the Pelini era, and Northwestern barely came away with a win in Lincoln last season. The Cornhuskers have already won the battle of the uniforms for this game (those shiny red N’s are superb work) and you can bet Ryan Field will be stocked with opposing fans. Heading into this year, Nebraska’s biggest question mark is its secondary, and it will be interesting to see whether or not the Cats decide to let Thorson air it out to take advantage.

Best case scenario: The Cats appear much more comfortable on their home turf as Nebraska struggles to put together anything that resembles an offense. A team rated highly by many “experts” in the preseason, the Cornhuskers are unable to put together more than 200 yards on offense.

Worst case scenario: Nebraska brings back the memories of the 2013 Hail Mary and 2014 Homecoming games and takes advantage of the Wildcats in prime time. The Cornhuskers move to 4-0 on the season and first place in the Big Ten West in a loss that will burn the Cats for the rest of the season.

Oct. 1: at Iowa. Last year — 12-2 (8-0 Big Ten), won Big Ten West, lost Rose Bowl. Coach — Kirk Ferentz (18th year) 

NU’s loss to Iowa in 2015 was deflating for multiple reasons. First, the Cats got destroyed in the trenches, something Fitzgerald lamented following the loss and believes his team needs to be successful at in order to have a chance to defeat top-tier teams. Second, it proved the blowout loss to Michigan the week before was not a fluke and suggested the Cats were not as good as their record. Finally, it eliminated almost any chance NU had to win the Big Ten West, which had been one of the team’s goals from the beginning of the season and seemed within reach after knocking off a ranked Stanford team to open the season. The Cats need this win in order to have a shot at the Big Ten West again, but it’s unlikely they’ll get it.

Best case scenario: The Hawkeyes are not going to go 12-0 again in the regular season, but last year they managed to win a lot of close games (40-10 blowout over NU aside). That kind of run is unsustainable in any sport, and, with Iowa losing two elite offensive linemen, the Cats somehow, some way, eke out a win before their bye week.

Worst case scenario: NU limps out of Kinnick Stadium after another drubbing. The Cats are manhandled at the line of scrimmage. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Oct. 15: at Michigan State. Last year — 12-2 (7-1 Big Ten), Big Ten champion, reached College Football Playoff quarterfinals/lost Cotton Bowl. Coach — Mark Dantonio (10th year) 

The Spartans were a strange team last season. They won 11 games in the regular season, but some very unconvincingly. There was the last-second field goal against Ohio State and the ridiculous punt-return touchdown against Michigan last season. Michigan State comes into the season at No. 12 in the nation, and it is still a very good team that could win double-digit games again. A blowout loss to eventual-champion Alabama burst the Spartan’s bubble at the end of last year and the team comes into 2016 without a definitive answer at quarterback after Connor Cook was drafted by the Oakland Raiders. However, Mark Dantonio’s squad has a legitimate shot at being the best defense in the country.

Best case scenario: Fitzgerald has discussed ad nauseum in the past about October slumps, and if it starts against Iowa it won’t get any better against the Spartans. This game is one Michigan State should absolutely win, but, if the Cats can keep it close like the Hawkeyes did in the Big Ten Championship Game last year, they may have a shot. NU would have to play perfectly though.

Worst case scenario: Two weeks after being blown out in Iowa, the Cats are shut out in East Lansing. NU heads into its first game against Ohio State since ESPN came to Evanston, having been outscored by 70+ points in its previous two games.

Northwestern football ranked No. 50 in all-time AP Top 100

by Tim Balk 0 Comments

In the first ever AP ranking of the top 100 all-time college football programs, Northwestern came in at No. 50.

Big Ten peer Ohio State topped the list, and Nebraska and Michigan clocked in at No. 6 and No. 7 respectively. Seven Big Ten programs made the list’s top 25, including Penn State, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Iowa. Rutgers was the lowest ranked program from the conference at No. 86.

The ranking is based on a formula taking into account the AP’s rankings going back to the poll’s creation in 1936. Ohio State has appeared in more than 77 percent of all AP polls since the ranking’s inception and has topped the ranking 105 times. The Wildcats hold an all-time record of 14-60-1 against the Buckeyes. 

NU finished last year ranked No. 23 in the AP poll having peaked at No. 12 before its bowl loss to Tennessee. The Cats landed ahead of academic peers such as Duke (No. 53), Boston College (No. 57) and Vanderbilt (No. 89) in the all-time ranking. They also finished one spot ahead of in-state rival Illinois.

NU kicks off its season Sep. 3 against against Western Michigan. The AP will release its preseason rankings on Aug. 21.

Morning Roundup: May 9, 2016

Morning Roundup: May 9, 2016
(Keshia Johnson/The Daily Northwestern)

A busy weekend took place for Northwestern sports teams. Here’s what happened…

  • The lacrosse team made it to the Big Ten Tournament championship game but ultimately fell to Maryland.
  • Dan Waldman discusses how a big second-half run by the Terrapins ultimately sunk the Cats.
  • Despite the loss, the lacrosse team earned an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and will face Louisville in the first round on Friday.
  • Joe Wilkinson recaps a successful run for the women’s golf team, which won their NCAA Regional bracket by 18 strokes.
  • In September, the Northwestern football team will host two prime time games against Duke and Nebraska.
  • Former baseball captain Kyle Ruchim had his contract with the independent Schaumburg Boomers purchased by the Chicago White Sox.

And here’s a look at Monday’s back page:

59 back

Northwestern football to get two prime time games

Northwestern football to get two prime time games
(Daily file photo by Nathan Richards)

Two of the Wildcats’ September games will be slotted for prime time, the program announced Monday morning.

On September 17, Northwestern will host Duke at 7 p.m., and on September 24 the Cats will kick off their Big Ten schedule against Nebraska at 6:30 p.m. Both games will be shown on the Big Ten Network.

In 2015, NU defeated Duke in Durham, North Carolina, 19-10 and narrowly escaped from Lincoln, Nebraska with a 30-28 victory.